The Well-Tempered Ear

Pianist Jeremy Denk combines first-rate playing with innovative programs. He performs a virtual online recital this Friday night for the Wisconsin Union Theater

December 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Jeremy Denk (below) is not only one of the top pianists on the concert stage today. He is also one of the most interesting and thoughtful pianists when it comes to original, innovative and eclectic programming.

Denk will display his talents again when he performs his third solo recital in Madison this Friday night, Dec. 11, for the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The concert of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Missy Mazzoli is at 7:30 p.m. and will be preceded by a public Q&A at 7 p.m. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, both the discussion and the concert will be virtual and online.

Access to the online posting is $20 for the general public, $17 for Wisconsin Union members, and $10 for students.

Denk’s performance, which is part of the Theater’s 101st Annual Concert Series, will include “Papillons” (Butterflies), Op. 2, by Robert Schumann; Three Romances, Op. 21, by Clara Schumann; “Bolts of Loving Thunder” by the contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli (below); and Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119, by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear Denk play the lyrically introspective first intermezzo of Brahms’ late Op. 119 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To purchase tickets to Denk’s performance, visit https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/jeremy-denk/

Ticket buyers will receive an email from the box office approximately 2 hours before the event begins that will contain their link to view the performance. Anyone who purchases a ticket within 2 hours of the event’s start time will receive their email within 15 minutes of purchase. 

To The Ear, Denk’s well-planned and fascinating program seems like a probing contrast-and-compare, narrative exploration of the musical styles and close personal relationships – a kind of love triangle — between Robert and Clara Schumann (below top); between Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, whom Robert Schumann championed; and between Brahms and Clara Schumann, who also championed Brahms (below bottom) but rejected him as a lover and suitor after the premature death of her husband Robert.

One of America’s foremost pianists, Denk is a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the Avery Fisher Prize, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the United States, Denk has performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra and frequently performs at Carnegie Hall. Internationally, he has toured with the world-famous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and performed at Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms. 

Denk’s talents include writing about music. Some of his stories about music have been featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review as well as in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Guardian. Many of those writings form the basis for a forthcoming book.

His passion for composing both music and writing compositions is evident in his music-based blog “Think Denk” — “to think” in German is “denizen” — which dates back to 2005.

“Jeremy Denk is one of the greatest pianists of our generation,” says WUT director Elizabeth Snodgrass. “While many pianists specialize in a particular period or composer, Jeremy is a musical omnivore whose wide-ranging interests span centuries and styles, and he is exceptional at playing all of them. As The New York Times said, he is  ‘a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs.’” 

Proof of that can be found in the program “c. 1300-c. 2000” he toured with and recorded last year for Nonesuch, which features a sampling tour of 700 years of keyboard compositions.

Said a critic for the Boston Globe: “Denk has “an unerring sense of the music’s dramatic structure and a great actor’s intuition for timing.” 


This performance was made possible by the David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Endowment Fund.

Learn more about Jeremy Denk at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Website

For more information and a video clip of Denk playing different Brahms, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/jeremy-denk/

 


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The UW-Madison’s Wingra Wind Quintet performs a FREE online virtual concert this Wednesday night. Plus, local music critic Greg Hettmansberger has died

December 8, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: Local music critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger (below) was killed in a car accident on Dec. 2, near Wichita, Kansas. Hettmansberger, 65, was driving when he hit a deer and then another car hit him. His wife survived but remains hospitalized in Wichita in critical condition. Here is a link to a news account:  https://www.kake.com/story/42993718/man-dies-in-crash-caused-by-deer-in-pratt-county

By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Dec. 9, the UW-Madison’s Wingra Wind Quintet (below, in 2017) will perform a FREE virtual online concert from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

Here is a direct link to the pre-recorded video premiere on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/e1NhVZJW2cA

Due to the pandemic, the Wingra Wind Quintet has been unable to perform chamber music in a traditional way since March 2020. (You can hear the quintet play “On, Wisconsin” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In response, the quintet put together a program that allowed each member to record parts separately and have those parts edited together.

Current faculty members (below) are: Conor Nelson, flute; Lindsay Flowers, oboe; Alicia Lee, clarinet; Marc Vallon, bassoon; and Devin Cobleigh-Morrison, horn

The engineer/producer is Kris Saebo.

The program is: 

The first piece “Allegro scherzando” from Three Pieces by Walter Piston (below, 1894-1976)

The Chaconne from the First Suite in E-flat for Military Band by Gustav Holst (below, 1874-1934)

“Retracing” by Elliott Carter (below, 1908-2012)

Selections from “Mikrokosmos” by Bela Bartok (below, 1881-1945)

“A 6 letter letter” by Elliott Carter

Intermezzo from the First Suite in E-flat for Military Band by Gustav Holst

“Esprit rude/esprit doux” by Elliott Carter

Since its formation in 1965, the Wingra Wind Quintet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music has established a tradition of artistic and teaching excellence.

The ensemble has been featured in performance at national conferences such as MENC (Miami), MTNA (Kansas City), and the International Double Reed Society (Minneapolis). 

The quintet also presented an invitational concert on the prestigious Dame Myra Hess series at the Chicago Public Library, broadcast live on radio station WFMT.

In addition to its extensive home state touring, the quintet has been invited to perform at numerous college campuses, including the universities of Alaska-Fairbanks, Northwestern, Chicago, Nebraska, Western Michigan, Florida State, Cornell, the Interlochen Arts Academy, and the Paris Conservatoire, where quintet members offered master classes.

The Wingra Wind Quintet has recorded for Golden Crest, Spectrum, and the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music recording series and is featured on an educational video entitled Developing Woodwind Ensembles.

Always on the lookout for new music of merit, the Wingra has premiered new works of Hilmar Luckhardt, Vern Reynolds, Alec Wilder, Edith Boroff, James Christensen and David Ott. The group recently gave the Midwest regional premiere of William Bolcom’s “Five Fold Five,” a sextet for woodwind quintet and piano, with UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below).

New York Times critic Peter Davis, in reviewing the ensemble’s Carnegie Hall appearance, stated “The performances were consistently sophisticated, sensitive and thoroughly vital.”

The Wingra Wind Quintet is one of three faculty chamber ensembles in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. 

Deeply committed to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, the group travels widely to offer its concerts and educational services to students and the public in all corners of the state. (Editor’s note: For more about the Wisconsin Idea, which seems more relevant today than ever, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Idea.)

Portions of this recording were made at the Hamel Music Center, a venue of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 


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Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.


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Classical music: Autumn arrives today. What composers, works and instruments do you like to listen to in fall? The Ear favors late Brahms – specially the strings, the piano and the clarinet

September 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fall arrives today.

The autumn equinox will occur at 8:54 p.m. Central Daylight Time.

As the days get markedly shorter and the night longer, one’s mood often changes as do one’s listening preferences.

Many composers have written pieces about autumn, and you are sure to hear many of them on Wisconsin Public Radio or other media outlets.

But The Ear has his favorites.

Not for nothing is the late music of Johannes Brahms described as autumnal, both because it happens late in the composer’s life and because of its bittersweet sounds, its poignant harmonies and its melancholy melodies.

For The Ear, you will find it in most of late Brahms, especially in the slow movements. He loves the string music – the violin, the cello and especially the viola sonatas – as well as the clarinet sonatas and piano intermezzi.

Below are three samples.

Here is the slow movement from the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim:

Here is the slow movement of the Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, for, in this case, clarinet or viola:

And here is a particularly moving piano intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2, in B-flat minor, played by Arthur Rubinstein:

And should you still be unsure what music you like for the fall, here is a link to two hours of music for fall  — vocal and instrumental music by Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn  Alexander Glazunov, Peter Tchaikovsky, Giuseppe Verdi, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler and others — put together by Minnesota Public Radio:

Is there a special composer who evokes autumn for you?

What instruments most speak to you of fall?

Are there special works you like to listen to in autumn?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section, along with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Tonight’s Concert on the Square features an 11-year-old cello prodigy and the Middleton High School Choir in an all-Russian program. It will be repeated on Wisconsin Public Television this Saturday night at 6 p.m.

July 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight’s Concert on the Square promises to be a special event on several scores.

The “Slavic Dances” concert starts at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell, will perform an appealing all-Russian program.

It features a Concert Waltz by Alexander Glazunov; the beautifully melodic and very accessible “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (heard with Yo-Yo Ma in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Intermezzo and Women’s Dance by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Adding to the appeal is the appearance of Miriam K. Smith (below) in the Tchaikovsky. Smith, who played and was interviewed on Tuesday’s edition of “The Midday” on Wisconsin Public Radio, is an 11-year-old prodigy on the cello who already has an impressive history of concert appearances.

As a kind of preface or program note to read if you are at the concert, here is a link to Smith’s interview and appearance on “The Midday”: https://www.wpr.org/programs/midday

For more biographical information about Smith and about the concert, in general including rules (blankets can go down starting at 3 p.m.), etiquette and food vendors, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-3-3/

Also joining the WCO is the Middleton High School Choir (below).

NOTE: If you can’t make the concert tonight in person, you can take consolation in the fact that the concert will be videotaped and then broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television on this coming Saturday night at from 6 to 7 p.m. on Channel 21 (Cable Channel 600).


Classical music: The 35th annual summer Concerts on the Square start this Wednesday night and will feature a lot of classical music

June 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Maestro Andrew Sewell usually makes sure the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra programs a fair amount of classical music for its annual summer Concerts on the Square (below).

The FREE popular outdoor concerts — billed as “The Biggest Picnic of  Summer” — usually draw up to at least 20,000 people for each performance on the King Street corner of the State Capitol.

They start this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. – blankets can go down at 3 p.m. — and run for six consecutive Wednesday nights through Aug. 1.

But this year Sewell (below) seems especially generous with the classical fare he is serving up. In fact, four of the six concerts are all classical – a much higher percentage than in most past years, if The Ear recalls correctly.

For the complete lineup of the concerts – and to compare this year’s offerings with those of past years — go to the website: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Then you can click on “More Info” for each individual concert date to get the full program and information about the performers.You can also find what you need to know about following rules, parking, reserving tables, listening etiquette, volunteering, donating and support, and finding menus for food providers.

For this opening concert “Carnival” on Wednesday, the WCO will showcase 18-year-old Kenosha high school senior Matthew Udry (below), a cellist who won this year’s Young Artist Concerto Competition. Udry will perform the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Also on the all-Slavic program are two Czech compositions:  the “Carnival” Overture by Antonin Dvorak (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Three Dances” from the opera “The Bartered Bride” by Bedrich Smetana.

An all-Russian concert is slated for July 11 with another student cellist, Miriam K. Smith (below top), and the Middleton High School Choir (below bottom). The program includes the Concert Waltz No. 2 by Alexander Glazunov, the “Rococo” Variations by Peter Tchaikovsky and the Intermezzo and Women’s Dance by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The July 25 concert features the up-and-coming guitarist Colin Davin (below) in a programs of Spanish and Hispanic music including Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Alberto Ginastera’s “Estancia: Four Dances,” and Roberto Sierra’s “Fandango.”

Finally, on Aug. 1, baritone Jubilant Sykes (below) is featured in a program that includes: the “Norwegian Rhapsody No. 1” by Johan Halvorsen; Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs,” including “Simple Gifts” and “I Bought Me a Cat” as well as two spirituals, “Were You There?” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”;  the Interlude from the symphonic ode, “La Nuit et l’Amour” (Night and Love), from the cantata “Ludus pro Patria,” by the French composer Augusta Holmes; and the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak.

Of course other programs include pops and rock music, plus patriotic music for the Fourth of July concert — only fitting for the occasion.

But The Ear still thinks the classical fare is generous and noteworthy.

Of course, loud chitchat, eating and other neighborly noise could interfere with your ability to listen closely to the music.

But Andrew Sewell and the WCO still deserve a big shout out!

Bravo, all!


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Classical music: Ethan Hawke’s documentary film “Seymour: An Introduction” about pianist Seymour Bernstein, is now playing at the Sundance Cinemas. Go see it. Don’t miss it.

April 4, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday brought an event The Ear has long been waiting for: The opening at Sundance Cinemas of Ethan Hawke’s 80-minute documentary film about the 81-year-old New York City-based pianist, writer and teacher Seymour Bernstein (below).

Seymour Bernstein close at keyboard

Bernstein, you might have heard, was a child prodigy and critically acclaimed adult concert artist who, beset by stage fright plus other mid-life crisis-like thoughts, at 50 decided to drop out of the concert life to devote himself to teaching, composing and writing.

Famed actor Ethan Hawke (below left, with Bernstein), who has also struggled with stage fright, met Bernstein at a dinner party and decided to make a movie about this extraordinary man. (At the bottom in a YouTube video you can hear Bernstein play a lovely and well-known Intermezzo in A major — Op. 118, No. 2 — by Johannes Brahms for his new friend Hawke at a tribute during the New York Film Festival.) 

Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein

And by all standards, the film is an outstanding success.

For example, it gets a rating of 100 percent from the public website Rotten Tomatoes.

I don’t think I have ever seen a 100 percent rating at that particular website.

Yet it is not surprising.

The professional critics for major media are indeed no less unanimous in their praise than is the general public.

I offer proof. Here are samples, each of which touches on certain specific aspects of the film, but all of which praise the film unequivocally:

First, here is a previous post from this blog. It whetted my appetite and maybe yours:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=seymour+bernstein

Seymour bernstein 1

Here is the backstory about Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/27/arts/ethan-hawke-films-seymour-an-introduction.html?_r=1

And here is a five-star review from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/13/movies/review-seymour-an-introduction-is-a-lesson-in-perseverance.html

Here is another five-star review from Roger Ebert’s website:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/seymour-an-introduction-2015

“Seymour” also gets high praise from The Wall Street Journal:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/seymour-an-introduction-review-striking-resonant-chords-1426186052

And from Rolling Stone magazine:

http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/seymour-an-introduction-20150311

And here is one from The Denver Post that I like and expect you will too:

http://www.denverpost.com/movies/ci_27831096/ethan-hawke-film-chronicles-career-top-classical-pianist

That should be plenty to convince you to go see “Seymour: An Introduction.” I don’t know how long it is scheduled to play at Sundance. But if enough people go and see it, it may be kept there for another week or two.

Then The Ear could see it twice.


Classical music: Bummer!!! The recent recital by YouTube sensation Valentina Lisitsa proved tedious and showed that great pianists aren’t always great musicians.

November 24, 2014
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Valentina Lisitsa (below), the Ukraine-born pianist who has become a YouTube sensation, played a recital here last Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. It featured music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa

All four men were accomplished pianists as well as composers.

So you would have thought that nothing could go wrong.

But it did.

Big time.

From the time she took the stage, Valentina Lisitsa seemed ill-at-ease and unsure of what to do musically. What resulted was a very long concert with too much boredom and tedium.

Her default position seemed to be to play a lot, and then play some more. It turned out to be more like a marathon or a 19th-century “monster concert” than a typical piano recital. I don’t know what the intent of her program was except perhaps to show off her undeniable stamina.

Valentina LIsitsa playing

True, the “new media” phenom, who has a clear gift for self-promotion and who attracts avid groupie-like fans to her many YouTube videos and concerts, played for the better part of three hours and never seemed to break a sweat, even in the most difficult pieces.

But I have to concur with The Wise Piano Teacher who said: “It was the worst piano recital I’ve heard in my life, and I’ve heard a lot of them. I came home angry.”

The teacher wasn’t alone.

Except for a few of the miniature intermezzi by Brahms and a few of the ingenious etudes by Schumann, the piano playing seemed disjointed and the music too often lacked musicality.

Now, my instinct is to be generous and to make allowances. Maybe it was just an “off” night. Or maybe she felt ill or sick. Or maybe she has been overbooked or underrehearsed in recent weeks.

I do know that I have heard Lisitsa play much better, though she seemed at her best when she accompanied the gifted American violinist Hilary Hahn (below), who perhaps gave her some interpretive direction.

hilary_hahn

The Ear kept thinking of the response by Vladimir Horowitz (below) when somebody asked him why he didn’t take the second repeats in sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti or why he didn’t play late sonatas by Beethoven. “I don’t want to bore the audience,” he said.

Vladimir Horowitz

Lisitsa showed no such concern for the audience. In fact her program, her stage manner and her playing all seemed listener-unfriendly. At times, her recital even seemed condescending and disdainful of the ordinary listener.

Valentina Lisitsa at keyboard 2

As a critic, I have to call it as I hear it. But I take no joy in writing this. There are few enough solo piano recitals in Madison these days, and I had really looked forward to this one. Rarely do I want to walk out of a concert of any sort, especially a piano concert. But this time I did want to walk out -– and I did leave early, during a Franz Liszt encore that was his arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also saw some other serious music fans walk out even earlier.

As for the all-Romantic program itself, here are some snapshots or mini-critiques:

The “Tempest” Sonata by Beethoven (below): This great sonata was frequently reduced from a tempest to directionless wind by dropped or missed notes and choppy interpretation as well as by inattention to dynamics. It just didn’t make sense intellectually or emotionally -– and it is a great masterpiece of emotional depth. And certainly her playing of the same work in a live concert in Paris in a YouTube video at the bottom is better than what I heard live here. 

Beethoven big

The “Symphonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann (below top): Decca has just released an 85-minute recording (below bottom) of Lisitsa playing these pieces plus the complete Chopin etudes. She seems drawn to etudes, perhaps because they often favor fingers over music. And this woman has fingers and technique to spare, even if she lacks musical ideas. imagination and something to say.

Schumann photo1850

Valentina Lisitsa Chopin Schumann etudes CD cover

Selected Intermezzi by Johannes Brahms (below): She didn’t stick to the program, and didn’t announce the changes to the audience. She played 14, but after a while they all ran together and it seemed more like 114. Better she should have played a set of just three or four intermezzi as a quiet interlude –- which was their original intended purpose. But instead she too often rushed through them. We missed the poignant melodies and harmonies, the autumnal soulfulness of late Brahms, to say nothing of the careful construction and counterpoint he used.

brahms3

Sonata No. 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below): The Ear thinks Lisitsa knew she has confused and lost her small audience when she went from the long Brahms set directly into the Rachmaninoff sonata. I heard some audience members wonder about what they were hearing – where Brahms had stopped and Rachmaninoff had begun. This sonata is a hard piece to hold together, and it didn’t help that she favored big noise over music, big chords over subtle voices.

rachmaninoffyoung

All in all, and despite a standing ovation — for her strength and brilliance, one suspects — The Ear found it a night to forget. I have heard Valentina Lisitsa (below) in better form and I wish I knew what happened here.

“Was she annoyed that the house wasn’t full?” someone asked. Maybe, although such an attitude would be highly unprofessional and too peevish or diva-like.

But I do know that when she next appears in a solo recital, I will think twice -– more than twice -– about attending.

That is too bad for me and too bad for her, too bad for the audience and too bad for the presenter.

Lisitsa_Valentina_2

But everyone’s a critic.

What did others of you who attended Valentina Lisitsa’s recital think?

Did you judge it a success or a failure?

The Ear wants to hear.


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